In the collegiate ranks, there are certain schools that instantly come to mind when you think of the hurdling events. One such school would be the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. One of the most outstanding hurdlers to ever compete for Tennessee was Reggie Towns, who ran for the Volunteers from 1980 to 1983. While at Tennessee, Towns was a member of the shuttle-hurdle relay team that still holds the national record for that event, and he also finished second to Roger Kingdom in the 110m High Hurdles at the NCAA outdoor nationals in 1983. Towns, who was born and raised in Raleigh, NC and currently lives in Raleigh, recently came by my classroom at the end of the school day to answer some questions about his life and hurdling career. The interview ended up becoming a fascinating trip to one of the most exciting eras in the history of the high hurdles.
The 43-year-old Towns began his hurdling career during his sophomore year (1977) at Broughton High School in Raleigh, NC. Like many hurdlers, Towns, who was 5’10” at the time, got involved in the event because he didn’t have the raw speed to sprint, so his coach suggested he try the hurdles. When he first started racing, “I got beat, and I got beat up,” Towns recalled, laughing. To the rescue came a senior named Tim Handy who took Towns under his wing and kept his spirits up by constantly telling him he was going to be a star hurdler one day. Handy’s main rival was Mike Quick, who later went on to play football and run hurdles for North Carolina State University, and then went on to play professional football for the Philadelphia Eagles, where he was a five-time pro-bowl wide receiver in the 1980s. “I wanted to be like them,” Towns said of Handy and Quick, explaining why he stuck with hurdling even though it didn’t come easily to him at first. Meanwhile, another encouraging figure was his father. As Towns stated, “My coach introduced me to the hurdles, Tim encouraged me that I was going to be good, but my biggest influence was my father. He pushed me, he knew my personality. My father was a teacher and a brick mason, but he spent summers with me, going to Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia, just to watch me run and encourage me. He wouldn’t let me be lazy.”
As a teenager, Towns competed both in high school track and Junior Olympic track. He did better in the Junior Olympics because of the higher level of competition. In addition to the hurdles, he also competed in the high jump, and his personal record in that event was 6’10”. “I really thought of myself more as a high-jumper,” he said. Nevertheless, he ran a hand-timed 13.7 in the 110s as a senior. The only other high school hurdlers he recollects as having run under 14.0 that year were Rodney Wilson, who later went on to run for Villanova University just outside of Philadelphia, and Willie Gault, who went on to become Towns’ teammate and rival at Tennessee. Gault is probably better known now as having been a starting wide receiver on the 1985 Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears.
When he moved on to Tennessee, Towns didn’t really have any trouble adjusting to the higher 42-inch hurdles for two reasons: one was that he had a growth spurt in the summer between his senior year of high school and his freshman year of college, as he shot up to his current height of 6’2”. The other reason is that he had practiced over 42s many times in high school, so he was used to them. Although the higher hurdles didn’t present much of a problem, the higher level of competition did. As he explained, “There are mental adjustments to make every time you go up to another level, whether it’s going from high school to college or going from college to international competition. You run according to the competition. When you have to step up your game, you step up your game.” With this mentality, Towns was able to hold his own against the big dogs. During his sophomore year, in May of 1981, the Tennessee hurdlers set the National Collegiate record in the shuttle-hurdle relay in a time of 54.40 – a record that stands to this day. Towns remembers that his team, consisting of Jerome Wilson, Anthony Hancock, Towns, and Gault, faced very tough competition on more than one occasion. “We went up against USC and they had Tonie Campbell. We beat them, then the next week we lost to a team that included Charles Foster and Kerry Bethel.” For you young bucks out there who don’t know, Campbell, one of best hurdlers in the world throughout the 1980s, made two Olympic teams in his career, and Charles Foster, the current sprint/hurdle coach at Clemson University, was a one-time world record holder with a pr of 13.20.
Towns made it to the finals of the NCAA 110 meter high hurdles in every year of his collegiate career, but didn’t really bust out until 1983, his senior year, when, as mentioned earlier, he finished second to the University of Pittsburgh’s Roger Kingdom, who would later go on to win two Olympic gold medals and break the world record. What was the difference in Towns’ senior year? As he puts it, the reasons for his success were more mental than physical. “I read a book on motivation and emotion, talking about the importance of making decisions, making plans, setting goals. After reading that, I started writing down goals, which I had never done before. I made up a ‘hit list’ of hurdlers I wanted to beat. Instead of acting like I was experienced, I started acting like I had never hurdled before. I took a whole new approach. My whole attitude was different, and I was in great shape. I worked out seven days a week. But it wasn’t just that I worked out a lot; it was more that they were focused workouts. I knew what I wanted to do.”
The increased focus was aided by the development of a relationship with a Tennessee alum named Bill High, who would often talk to Towns to help him better understand the mental side of training and competing. High also helped to coach Towns and some of the other Tennessee hurdlers. High’s guidance benefited Towns not only in his mental approach, but also in regards to his hurdling technique. “I didn’t learn how to run hurdles until I got to college,” Towns said. “I had a lazy trail leg. I didn’t learn the trail-leg motion – you know, bring it up high, underneath the armpit – until my sophomore year at Tennessee. Then it wasn’t until my senior year, with Bill, that I really perfected it like I wanted to.” From the outset of the outdoor season of his senior year, Towns had the confidence that he could contend for the national title. “In the first outdoor meet that year I ran against Andre Phillips of UCLA and held my own. I was right in the mix.” Again, for you youngsters who don’t know, Phillips, who is arguably the best double hurdler ever, won Olympic gold in ’88 in the intermediates, defeating Edwin Moses, and also ran a pr of 13.25 in the 110s that same year. Towns also points out that a rivalry with teammate Willie Gault formed in his senior year, as “I finally began to realize I could run with Willie.”
In the NCAA final that year (1983), he doesn’t remember ever even seeing Kingdom, the eventual winner. “He was way over there,” Towns said, waving his hand. “It was a nine-lane track; Kingdom was over there in another area code somewhere. I was so focused on Willie, I didn’t even see Kingdom.” Towns’ second place was his highest finish ever in four attempts, and it stands as the highlight of his hurdling career. The reason that race felt so rewarding was because “I prepared so much for it,” he said, referring to the goal-setting, the mental preparation, and the seven-day-a-week training program he employed throughout the 1983 season. Another significant career highlight was finishing seventh at the Olympic Trials in 1980, when only a freshman at Tennessee. “Everybody was there,” he said, nostalgically rubbing his chin, “Nehemiah, Greg Foster. . . .” Unfortunately, due to severe Achilles pain in both legs, Towns was not able to make another Olympic bid in 1984. “I signed with Adidas in ’84, but lost my focus, then got hurt before the trials,” he explained. “The ultimate goal for a track athlete is always to go to the Olympics. The Olympics are the Super Bowl of track. So yeah, I was disappointed that that never happened for me.”
Towns did point out another factor to explain why he never broke through internationally: he refused to take steroids. “Guys who did went and ran in Europe,” he said, “but then they faded fast.” In light of the current ongoing BALCO scandal, as well as the two Greek sprinters who withdrew from the Athens Games amid suspicion of drug use, I asked Towns if he felt steroid use and performance-enhancing drugs in general are more of a problem now than they were back when he was hurdling competitively. “Steroids have always been a big deal,” he answered, “but it’s bigger now because of money. There’s more money in the sport, so there’s more at stake. It was going on in my time. I was even accused because I went from 13.9s consistently one year to 13.5s consistently the next. But that was because I worked on my technique. Charles Foster joked once that I might be on something because I beat him and I had never beaten him before.” Towns did reveal that the temptation to take steroids was a real one, and that not everybody said no. “I was approached by a shot-putter,” he said. “He asked me, ‘aren’t you tired of gettin’ beat by Willie?’ I was like, ‘yeah, man, I sure am,’ but I didn’t know what he was getting at. Then I asked my coach about it, and he said ‘it depends on how good you wanna be.’ I decided I didn’t want to risk it. But yeah, I know guys who did.”
Another reason Towns chose not to take steroids is because he respects the sport too much, and, specifically, he respects the hurdles too much. When asked what separates hurdlers from other track athletes, Towns immediately responded by stating, “Hurdlers are the greatest athletes in the field. There’s a fear factor involved that isn’t present in any other event, except pole-vaulting. And you can’t be afraid. You have to run over ten obstacles. You can’t just get over ‘em any old way. You can’t just jump over ‘em. You have to run over ‘em, at full speed, efficiently. We’re good athletes,” he said, referring to hurdlers, “but not necessarily the fastest athletes. Hurdling requires more than just speed. It requires, flexibility, strength, and courage. A hurdler needs something to do. Just running a straight 100 or straight 200, that’s boring for a hurdler.” When asked what kind of hurdler he was – a power hurdler, a speed hurdler, or a technique hurdler, he responded without hesitation that he was a technique hurdler, which surprised me a little, considering that he stands 6’2” and weighed a solid 178 pounds during his competitive days. “I once ran a 100 in an all-comers meet,” he explained. “I thought, if I can run with Willie, and he’s running 10.1, 10.2 in the 100, I should be able to run around that fast. Man, I went out there and ran a 10.7. So, for me, it wasn’t about speed. I really worked hard on my technique. Especially the trail leg motion. I put a lot of time in on that. My strength was in being able to negotiate a hurdle. That’s what I worked on the most.”
Towns enjoys both the artistic and scientific aspects of hurdling. To him, hurdling is more an art to the outside observer, but more of a science to the athlete and coach. As he said, “To the lay person, it’s an art. They see the fluid motion, and it looks very artistic. I’ve heard people compare hurdlers to ballet dancers or gymnasts. But for someone involved in it, it’s a science. We’re talking about millimeters here, being the difference between winning and losing, so you have to look at every little thing and analyze it scientifically. But yeah, it is very graceful; it’s the most graceful event in Track and Field.”
Towns still follows track, particularly the hurdles, very closely. He laughed, for instance, when noting the extraordinary longevity of Allen Johnson’s career. “That boy’s still runnin’,” he remarked. “That boy’s been runnin’ a long time.” In Towns’ opinion, the 110s haven’t evolved all that much since he was competing. “I look at my times twenty years ago and look at the place I got, and ask what place I could have had if I were running today, and it’d be right around the same. What has changed is that the training has leaked out to other countries. That Chinese boy (Liu Xiang) running under thirteen is proof of that. But the range of world class is basically 12.8 – 13.2, which is what it was back then.” Xiang won the gold medal in the Athens Olympics, tying the world record in 12.91. As Towns pointed out, American coaches work with so many athletes from other countries that American influence can be seen in athletes who run for nations all over the globe.
One difference that Towns does see in the modern athlete is a greater propensity towards trash talk and swaggering. “That stuff Maurice Greene does, you didn’t see that back when I was runnin’. There were some mind games, stare-downs, but I laughed at stuff like that. I was like, ‘we’re in college, man, there’s no point to all that stuff.’ But most guys were so concentrated on doin’ their own thing, we didn’t have time for that.” In describing his own pre-race routine, Towns said that he would always start his warm-up one hour before the start of the race. “I’d do some jogging, running, working up a good sweat, but not going too hard. Then I’d stretch for at least thirty minutes. Then I’d do some quick blasts, sometimes out of the blocks. If I didn’t come to the starting line sweating, I knew I wasn’t ready.” When asked if he talked, even just conversationally, with opponents prior to a race, Towns replied with an emphatic no. “I learned from my dad in the Junior Olympic meets not to talk before a race. He would always pull me aside when I was chatting and joking with opponents and make me go off by myself and get ready. I didn’t realize then that those guys were softening me up so I’d lose my focus. But I realized it later.”
Towns’ advice for young hurdlers is simple but direct: “Don’t be afraid. If you’re afraid of falling, hitting your knees, afraid of the obstacle, or of any other obstacles in your life, don’t try the hurdles. If you have fear, try another event.” Towns also feels that young hurdlers shouldn’t necessarily be in a hurry to win the moment they step on the track, as it takes a long time to learn the nuances of rhythm and technique. “I lost a whole lot before I won. Kids today don’t appreciate the value of learning how to lose. They want to win right away.” The victories, as Towns learned, do eventually come. But they don’t come merely with time. They come through determined effort, by setting goals, and by doing the work needed to meet those goals. Success in the hurdles comes through a combination of physical, mental, and emotional factors, all coming together at the starting line. This is the message of Reggie Towns.
© 2004 Steve McGill